You walk into the gallery and you're confronted by a hole in reality. An image of yourself stares back at you, inverted. As you approach the image, it grows exponentially bigger until, at a certain point (a precise point), you fill the screen in an explosion of skin and fabric. Right up close to the image, your brain gets around the idea that this is a mirror, but your face is huge, like the breast of the giantess that Gulliver encountered in Brobdingnag and on which he saw every blemish and pimple. As you reach out to touch the mirror, which is in the shape of a great dish hanging on the wall, your hand withers away to its natural size.
This is Inverse Reverse Perverse (1996), the most dramatic piece in the eponymous show by British artist Cerith Wyn Evans. But the exhibition also contained two further works, and the three together made a powerful installation. Hanging above the doorway of the same room was TIX (1994), a neon exit sign in which the lettering has been reversed (and in this show inverted too, so that it read correctly when you stepped back to view the upside-down room in the mirror). Across the stairs in the office were framed photographs of Wyn Evans as a child, taken by his father (a forensic photographer) and arranged by the artist into clusters. These are the shots of a competent photographer - creamy black and white prints, 'good' compositions, cutesy narrative devices - but they too were all displayed upside-down.
Those familiar with Wyn Evans' prior output (such as the films with which he made his name in Britain in the late 80s) would have recognised the distinctive treatment of the vanitas tradition that ran through this show. All three works used the 'mirrored' image as a token of the individual's relationship to time, touching on themes of corruption and loss. But in their different ways each avoided morbidity and questioned the naturalisation of such a discourse. Just as the mirror in The Snow Queen makes the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly, so the mirrors in this show did not simply 'reverse' but 'invert' too. With this simple disruptive gesture Wyn Evans showed that the image offered by the mirror is only another story that someone else tells about us.
Both the title piece and TIX spoke eloquently of the tyranny of mirrors. The horrific magnifications and distortions of the concave mirror could not fail to inspire the viewer with the fear of his own potential ugliness and decay. But while this piece evoked the vanity mirror and the individual's private scrutiny of their own face, it also recalled the surveillance mirror and more public forms of policing. This was reinforced by the exit sign, another token of social control. Here again it was as if the viewer was on the 'wrong' side - the wrong side of 30, the wrong side of the law. For me, the suggestion of the viewer participating in his own marginalisation evoked a queer identity (perhaps that of an 'invert' or 'pervert'). But the reversed sign revealed a complex take on such phenomena. The sign was seen as if from a backstairs space, perhaps the space between an auditorium and the street; the kind of liminal public space that becomes a site for cruising, showing how marginalisation can be reappropriated within desire.
And then there were those upside-down photographs. Parents may still obsessively document their offspring, but in these days of paranoia about the 'proper limits' of the depiction of children, it doesn't take much to alarm us. Wyn Evans was shown at all ages, acting out roles for his father: gazing through banisters, sucking on an ice-cream cone, playing at shaving. There was something troubling about these pictures. Perhaps it stemmed from their element of role-play, given our over-sensitivity to the inscription of adult desire onto the supposed blank page of childhood. Or perhaps it simply came from the artist's decision to invert his own image, and what that implied about his own attitude to his childhood.
Wyn Evans' young face looked clear and beautiful and open. I scanned the photos for 'evidence', like you scan the images in a biography, but if I was looking for the origin of their strangeness I couldn't find it. I'm fascinated by the tell-tale flush that sometimes creeps over Cerith's adult face, and what struck me first about these pictures was its absence. I began to think about the moral reading of faces, about our desire for the face to tell a truth about its owner - the order that Wilde both inverts and maintains in Dorian Gray. Wyn Evans plays with such conventions too, but with a kind of stupid theatricality that is much more contemporary, making its own strange peace with pathology. Don't we just love the stories that other people tell about us. Don't we just love the attention.